Anthropology Essay

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Deriv ed from the Greek anthropos (human) and logia (study), anthropology is the study of humans, past and present. Ideally, the perspective of anthropology is expansive, comparative, and holistic, tackling questions such as why people behave as they do and what accounts for human diversity. Two basic foci-cultural and biological variation have preoccupied proto-anthropologists for millennia and continue to drive the discipline today. Anthropologist Eric Wolf described anthropology as “both the most scientific of the humanities and the most humanistic of the sciences.”

Development of the Discipline

During the 15th century, Europeans set sail in search of additional trade routes, and they encountered peoples and places, flora and fauna previously unknown to them. Developments in maritime technologies and the invention of the rifle aided European influence and imperial expansion, facilitating in myriad ways greater intercultural interactions as well as processes of acculturation (forcible culture change).

By the start of the 19th century, Europeans had traveled and collected vast amounts of information regarding different peoples and their environs, feeding speculations about “human nature” and “human society” on a global scale. Around this time, the word anthropologist came into use in the English language. Formalization of anthropology as an academic profession occurred in 1884, as Sir Edward Burnett Tylor accepted the first university position in anthropology as a University Reader at Oxford.

Ethnography, which refers to the written, photographic, and/or motion picture account of cultural anthropological fieldwork, and anthropology in general, were linked to imperialism and colonialism. The same European countries expanding their spheres of influence requested ethnographic data about colonized people in order to figure out how to manage them.

Some colonial era ethnographers, such as Evans-Pritchard, were renowned for their defense of indigenous ways of life, and still others actively critiqued the colonial enterprise (e.g., Franz Boas). However, not all of the so-called great colonial powers developed a discipline of anthropology Portugal and Spain did not-and not only colonials collected anthropological data. Colonial administrators also relied heavily on accounts from missionaries, merchants, and other travelers.

The three major homes of academic anthropology today derived from 19th and 20th century hubs of imperial expansion. They are continental Europe, Britain, and the United States. Although of similar roots and some convergence, there have been differences in approaches among them. There are many and varied thinkers and movements that have contributed to the discipline of anthropology. For example, proto-anthropology can be traced back to Herodotus (5th century B.C.E.) and his detailed cultural descriptions; and contemporary anthropology can also be described as an outcome of the Age of Enlightenment and its varied attempts to methodically examine human beings through empirical research. Heavily influenced by natural history and the theory of evolution through natural selection, 19th-century anthropologists adopted the notion of “progress” to describe changes in human cultural practices over time.

Lewis Henry Morgan of the United States, fascinated with American Indians and cultural change, provided great contributions to kinship studies in the late 19th century. Drawing on his own fieldwork, other ethnographic accounts, and responses to questionnaires he had distributed to missionaries and travelers, Morgan embraced ethnology, the comparative study of human societies. Morgan’s book Ancient Society (1877) codified the cultural evolutionist position in anthropology, proposing that some human societies had progressed more than others. This universalist and unilineal theory of human development drew from French philosopher Montesquieu and included three stages: savagery, barbarism, and civilization. The first two stages included subdivisions of lower, upper, and middle; new inventions marked transitions from one stage to the next, such as the use of fire, pottery, and so on. These stages of development tracked differences and changes in technology, political organization, and kinship systems. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels viewed Morgan’s work as validating historical materialism and also providing comparative data from nonindustrial societies. Engels would later write Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1884), paralleling Morgan’s Ancient Society and tying their materialist strategies together.

Another ethnologist, Edward Burnett Tylor of Great Britain, published Primitive Culture in 1871 and employed the same three stages of development as Morgan, but added that civilization included an advance in happiness and certain moral qualities. Tylor drew his conclusions from comparative research on religions, which he suggested were universal responses to universal experiences, and he traced religious evolution from animism to polytheism to enlightened monotheism. Like Morgan, Tylor’s comparative method considered living “tribal” peoples as examples of prehistoric societies that had yet to evolve into the higher stages of development. Significantly, Tylor defined culture as “that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, arts, morals, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.” As it turns out, Tylor the Englishman gave American anthropology “culture,” its basic unifying concept, and Morgan, an American, founded detailed kinship studies, which has since become the forte of the British.

Early 20th Century

By the end of the 19th century, some anthropologists openly rejected the unilineal evolutionist paradigm, and the 20th century opened with wide-ranging support of some combination of diffusionism, historicism and, eventually, structuralism and functionalism. For example, Austro-German anthropology, rooted in geographic and linguistic studies, analyzed culture complexes, their ecological constraints, and how they developed historically.

As Morgan’s work indicates, anthropology in the United States arose in part from concerns for the cultures and histories of populations native to North America. This line of anthropology was furthered via the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Smithsonian’s Bureau of American Ethnology. The honorific title of “Father of American Anthropology” belongs to German-born and educated Franz Boas, also known as Papa Franz. Boas founded the first major department of anthropology at Columbia University in 1899. A proponent of what became known as historical particularism, Boas advocated participant observation and “total recovery” a holistic approach in collecting data to understand the historical events that may have led to the development of particular cultural facts. Among Boas’s more famous students were Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead, Alfred Kroeber, and Robert Lowie.

Due in large part to Boas’s influence, American anthropology has typically been divided into four fields: 1) archaeology the study of material remains of human societies, usually from the past, to describe and explain human behaviors; 2) biologcal/physical anthropology the study of humans and nonhuman primates as biological organisms through primatology, biological evolution, forensics, osteology, population genetics, and so on; 3) linguistics-the study of human language, its variations, social uses, relationship to culture, and changes over time; and 4) cultural/sociocultural anthropology-the study of human beliefs, values, and behaviors, such as ideology, production and consumption patterns, kinship, gender roles, exchange, politics, religion, and art.

While Boas was shaping American anthropology, A.R. Radcliffe-Brown and Polish-born Bronislaw Malinowski were busily shaping British social anthropology. Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown proposed functionalist paradigms, which were far less interested in reconstructing a society’s history than Boasnian historical particularism. Rather, functionalists focused on analyses of how societies operated and held together in the present. Based on his extensive participant-observation fieldwork in the Trobriand Islands, Malinowski developed psychological functionalism to describe how cultural institutions meet basic physical and psychological needs of individuals within a society. Malinowski’s students included E.E. Evans-Pritchard, renowned for his work among Nuer and Azande peoples in Sudan, and Raymond Firth, a key economic anthropologist.

Radcliffe-Brown created structural functionalism, which studied various aspects of society in terms of how they functioned to maintain the society as a whole. Drawing on French sociologist Emile Durkheim, Radcliffe-Brown subscribed to the notion that society was somehow distinct from its members and as such molds individuals’ behaviors. These functionalist theories were conceived by European anthropologists and applied through studies of peoples in European-held territories.

Post-World War II to the Present

Because of the discipline’s growth, post-World War II anthropology has become a collection of more specialized subfields that cut across the four fields outlined previously. Three of the fastest-growing examples include development anthropology, medical anthropology, and environmental anthropology. Medical anthropologists study meanings of and relationships among health, disease or illness, healing practices, and social systems. Development anthropologists may also examine human health and nutrition as they look at global, economic contexts within which “development” takes place, with a focus on implications of international trade, investment, international lending institutions, and debt. Environmental anthropology focuses on the relations between humans and their environments. Contemporary environmental anthropology has grown out of and/or co-evolved with cultural ecology, founded by Julian Steward; ecological anthropology, for example, Roy Rappaport’s work on ecosystemic homeostasis; human ecology; and ethnoecology, which refers to how people name, classify, and otherwise conceptualize flora, fauna, and human activity within the environment.

Founded in 1902, the American Anthropological Association (AAA) now has over 10,000 members and is the world’s largest organization of individuals interested in anthropology. Completion of a doctorate is necessary to achieve full professional status as an anthropologist. Directly linked to the academy, one could also work as a field archaeologist, or within museums, research institutions, physical anthropology labs, area studies, or ethnic/multicultural centers.

Outside of academic institutions, cultural and linguistic anthropologists may work as research directors; science analysts; and program officers in federal, state and local government, international agencies, nonprofit organizations, health care institutions, marketing firms and research institutes. Biological anthropologists may work in biomedical research, forensics, genetics laboratories, and pharmaceutical firms.


  1. American Anthropological Association,;
  2. Franz Boas and George Stocking Jr., , A Franz Boas Reader: The Shaping of American Anthropology, 1883-1911 (University of Chicago Press, 1989);
  3. Merwyn Garbarino, Sociocultural Theory in Anthropology (Waveland Press, 1983);
  4. Jon McGee and Richard Warms, Anthropological Theory: An Introductory History (McGraw-Hill, 2003).

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